Henri Matisse: The ‘Cut-Outs’ at Tate Modern from 2014

Wondering through ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’, I had to keep on reminding myself that the work currently on show at Tate Modern was but one aspect of this artist. One. When you see this extraordinarily diverse, inventive and incredibly moving art, it illuminates the talent of a true artistic genius. And I do not use that word lightly.

This exhibition has made me reassess the capacity of Tate Modern to put on a first rate exhibition and manage the inevitable crowds. The team around curator Nicholas Cullinan have designed and structured the show well. Although busy, I had sufficient time, space and access to the work on display. In general, this was without being shuffled along by too many expectant and impatient numbers of people.

Matisse lived a fairly long time; from 1869 to 1954. To give perspective to the changes he experienced; the Franco Prussian War and Hydrogen Bomb bookended his life. As a young artist, he found fame partly for his innovative draughtsmanship; but most significantly for his incredible sensitivity to and handling of colour. Matisse’s sense of colour defined him as one of the most important and revolutionary artists of the 20th century. To Picasso, Matisse was one of the few artists he saw as being on an equal footing: curiously enquiring about what he was ‘up to’ throughout the latter’s life.

Witnessing, absorbing and participating in that heady period of Post Impressionist invention up to and through the fin de siècle, Matisse rapidly emerged as a major player and the undisputed leader of Les Fauves (The Wild Beasts). Their work blazed and opened the eyes of the public to vast new possibilities of colour during the first few years of the 20th century; although not without encountering hostility in some quarters.

It was Matisse’s pioneering pictorial invention that laid the ground for much of what was to come after in terms of the liberation of colour from literal description. ‘Seeing’ and ‘feeling’ through colour as a language in itself, redefined artists’ relationship to it. Matisse developed and expanded ideas about using colour to express emotion and developed new forms for doing so. He also challenged conventional assumptions of perspective and narrative in painting. A vast subject too complex to go into here: but without him, the very course of Modernism as we know it and huge varieties of Expressionist art that followed, would have been very different, if non existent. The 20th century would have been poorer.

In later life, Matisse suffered health problems that limited his mobility. For much of this period, he was confined to a wheelchair. However, his fertile imagination and capacity to adapt were enhanced by his optimism and love of life. This exhibition focuses on this latter period, when the artist was based in the South of France.

The ‘cut-out’ techniques gradually emerged from his artistic practice as a Painter and Printmaker. They initially allowed Matisse to develop and manipulate visual ideas; themes and so forth with incredible control and clarity. In many cases, he used pins instead of glue to fix the component pieces of coloured paper into place and left them in; simultaneously giving each whole work an added dynamism and directness. In the cut paper piece from 1940 called ‘Still Life with Shell’,  Matisse can be seen working out the eventual painted version; both of which are to be seen early on in the show.

Gradually, as he refined the techniques of manipulating the paper, these ‘cut outs’ came to dominate his output as works in their own right, giving his art a new dimension. At key points in the show, we see colour film depicting Matisse at work on the ‘cut outs’. This is incredibly important information to have and captures the artist in ‘full flow’. His scissors appear to glide through the paper like liquid; Matisse seems to be ‘feeling’ his way (rather than looking) to create shapes that look limp in his deft and confident hands, but when placed on the wall, are perfectly formed and proportioned. This is also true in each shapes’ relationship to each other and the surrounding space.

‘It is no longer the brush that slips and slides over the canvas, it is the scissors that cut into the paper and into the
colour’ (Matisse)

The resulting images on display at the beginning of the show possess a graphic complexity and directness. ‘Two Dancers’ (1937-8) is a good example of Matisse’s increasing refinement of the ‘cut out’. The dancers are seen pinned to a blue rectangular background which has a somewhat ambiguous spacial reading for the viewer. Yellow horizontal lines are at the top and base. The brilliantly rendered black figure almost appears to be lifting or thrusting a fragmented white and yellow figure in the direction of the upper left part of the picture; adding a dynamic quality to the composition. This figure is in pieces (some of which are coming off the picture- being only loosely pinned on) and suggests something other than human; to these eyes almost animal or symbolic of the spirit or the unattainable.

For Matisse, each colour is deeply symbolic in meaning. In 1937, he began to design the scenery and costumes for Leonide Massine’s ballet based on Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony 1’. Matisse translated the music into five colours. White for man and woman. Yellow for wickedness, blue for nature, red for materialism and black for violence. Blue often occurs in Matisse’s work. He uses the flat pure colours of the paper to both convey lyrical emotions and states of mind. As I walked round, I couldn’t help thinking of the ‘spin offs’ in the world of graphic design that have been derived from this work. For example, take a look at the original poster for ‘Vertigo’ and you’ll see what I mean. All the same, I also couldn’t help wondering what will happen as the papers fade. Is there some method to compensate for this inevitable decline?

Matisse loved the subject of the Dance. The figures of dancers appear throughout his career in his most important pictures. Sometimes he painted them in isolation, but often, they are portrayed together in the act of dancing. His dancers express something primal about the state of being human and are perhaps beyond ‘civilisation’. They seem to occupy the ‘ideal’ space of art, rather than any actual setting. One could say they represent the pure joy of living- naked and free.

In this exhibition, we see an extraordinary range of dancing figures. Many are overflowing with deep meanings and potent symbolism; both figurative and abstract. Those same qualities can be seen in many of the other subjects in Matisse’s work on display here. ‘The Fall of Icarus’ (1943)
being an excellent example.

Matisse made designs for an artist’s book for Teriade that came to be called ‘Jazz’. The exhibition displays the individual pages, so the viewer can see the important evolution of the ‘cut out’ work process. Initially asked to just illustrate the poems, the book contains the artist’s exquisite, lyrical handwritten notes. These fit perfectly and are beautiful to behold. However, Matisse himself saw that in translation from the original images, they lost their surface detail and were flattened out by the printing process. But it was through this endeavour that the artist began to see the ‘cut outs’ as works in their own right.

Matisse had travelled to Tahiti in 1930 and this rich experience had a profound influence on him. You can see this apparent in the work ‘Oceania, The Sky’ on display in Room 4. According to his assistant and muse Lydia Delectorskaya, the starting point to this large work had been when the artist cut out an image of a Swallow on writing paper. It distressed him to throw it away and so he put it up on the wall of his flat. He gradually added to this subjects drawn from his memories of the South Seas. He was working not to a preconceived plan, but rather being led by imagination and instinct. According to Delectorskaya, he didn’t know what the outcome would be. Memory had taken the place of the outside world as the artist’s imagination flew far and vast. What I particularly noticed about these works was their subtlety of form, arrangement and most strikingly of all: colour. In ‘Oceania, The Sky’ the artist has shelved the intense, vibrant and dramatic colours of his previous work. Instead, he’s using parred down single tones, upon which the white cut out subjects stand out and yet blend in at the same time. This is art of incredible sophistication and contemplative harmony.

I think it important to give credit where credit is due. Without assistants like Lydia Delectorskaya to help Matisse realise his artistic ideas, it would have been intensely difficult if not impossible for the artist to do so much. She wrote an account of her time with the artist called ‘Apparente Facilité’ in which she describes his artistic methods. It is to people like her, who gave so much to the creation of Matisse’s art, that we owe a great deal.

Room 8 and 9 contain a wonderful range of the artist’s ‘cut outs’. ‘Zulma’ demonstrates Matisse’s skill in using paper fragments to evoke depth and three dimensional space in the picture. His choice of colour, form and their composition provide evidence that his ‘cut out’ technique could rival salon painting. That depth and sophistication also possessed an extraordinary graphic impact, as can be seen in the artist’s ‘Creole Dancer’.

One of the strangest and most surprising of all the works on show is ‘The Bees’ from 1948. The image is composed of large numbers of small ‘cut out’ pieces; arranged to suggest the flight of a bee (or two bees) across the picture plane. The bee is shown in motion and Matisse depicts it as a series of repeated identical black and white geometric shapes across the surface, like looking at a film strip. As a result, they stand out against the coloured background; made up of small square coloured pieces that are arranged in diagonal tangents, that look like they are meant to suggest emanating rays of light from the sun. However, if it is the sun, that sun is only suggested not pictured.

‘The Bees’ appears to be looking back to Futurist ideas about simultaneity as evidenced in the work of artists like Balla. I think it’s also fair to suggest that the classical element of repetition and asymmetrical harmony the image has is shared with certain tendencies in Pop and even Minimalism.

The minimalism of The Blue Nudes show how Matisse was a master of form. Rendered in beautiful simplicity, these intricate blue nudes are portrayed perfectly in their states of poise and movement. Matisse is able to combine the tensions of their bodies within an aesthetic structure that is both flat and full of suggested depth. Similar examples include ‘The Acrobats’. I have never seen anything like it.

As his ability to move dwindled, he pursued and developed creative methods that; contrary to the usual tendency of working on a smaller scale, actually resulted in Matisse’s work getting bigger. Much bigger. Huge in fact. By the time he creates the huge scale ‘cut out’ pieces, Matisse isn’t always cutting; but often ‘tearing’ out shapes. His assistants are also creating coloured papers. Painting onto plain paper to achieve the correct impact.

The scope of this exhibition is beyond belief. The seventeen years that the show covers condense more creativity than many artists achieve in a lifetime. Throughout the forties and into the fifties, Matisse continued to develop and refine his ‘cut out’ techniques and applications. He is always looking to the future and to expanding his creative directions. We can see the results of this towards the end of the exhibition. These include sculptures, book covers and periodicals and designs for stained glass.

For Vence- The Chapel, Matisse used a long bamboo staff to draw large from a fixed point some distance away from the picture. Having tried something similar in the past, I know that the evenness and refinement the artist achieved is beyond belief. I was in my youth and good health when I tried it (my results were crap). Matisse could hardly move and his results speak for themselves.

He had to use his imagination to develop the designs for this Dominican Chapel of the Rosary. These included not just Vestments and stained glass, but also the whole decorative concept. The planning became an act of total immersion for Matisse; turning his studio into his bedroom in order to live the working process and be able to refine the designs.

‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’ is one of the largest works Matisse ever made. He developed it on the walls of his studio and it gradually attained its large size. In order for Matisse to create it, he got his assistants to move the pieces into place on his instruction.

The final part of the show is concerned with his late large compositions. An intense amount of work and thinking went into the creation of these pieces. This of course was one of the great advantages of the ‘cut out’ technique: the ability to re-arrange the components of each piece. Some of the large compositions are suggestive of the borders between still life and landscape, others like the famous ‘The Snail’ are even harder to pin down. This image is one of the Tate’s most memorable pictures. Memorable in part for its enigma. Matisse is at such a creative and intuitive level at this point, that this image is both simple to see and yet hugely complicated to read. It stays with you long after viewing it; imprinted on your memory, gradually revealing it’s true depth like an after image that goes on and on. It has both an abstract and literal dimension to it, and is a precursor for much abstract art that came afterwards. It also asks the viewer some fundamental questions about how we interpret visual information.

In conclusion, how can I sum up this show? Although the power of the work is plain to see, this is an exhibition that will hopefully reveal one aspect of Matisse’s output that many might not even know about, let alone have seen. Therefore I strongly suggest taking a look. If there’s one show this year you should see, it is this. You won’t be disappointed.

(c) Gideon Hall 2014

(This article was first published in Femalearts Magazine in 2014)